DeKALB – Bill Leighly wishes his position wasn’t necessary.
He is the caretaker of the Antinette “Toni” Keller Memorial Garden. The garden is near the southeast parking lot of the DeKalb Elks Club and is outside Prairie Park in DeKalb.
“It’s just something, of course, I wish we didn’t have to do,” he said. “It was just an enormous tragedy for the community.”
Keller, a Northern Illinois University freshman, was murdered in Prairie Park on Oct. 14, 2010.
The memorial garden includes a bench with a plaque, surrounded on both sides by sunflowers, Keller’s favorite flower. Nearby is a little white cross with her name, adorned with teddy bears. The plaque reads, “Gone, but never forgotten, Sunflower Girl Toni Keller,” and was dedicated earlier this year.
Leighly, a former Daily Chronicle reporter who is now the superintendent of the Center of Governmental Studies at Northern Illinois University, spent some time talking in the garden with MidWeek reporter Doug Oleson.
MidWeek: How long has this been here?
Bill Leighly: The bench has been here since this past spring. This is the first year for this part of the garden. Last year, Thelma Holderness, who I am working with on this project, planted a single sunflower over by the cross. Thelma is the founder of the Facebook group “Summoning of the Yellow,” a community support group for the Toni Keller Project.
She was powerfully affected by the tragedy, as a lot of us were.
I remember the day it was announced that a girl went missing. I was hoping and praying that they would find her. And when the truth became known, it was terrible. I don’t think anything like that has happened around here before.
My initial reaction was kind of anger. How can that happen?
MW: Did you know her?
BL: Not personally, no. Thelma did. ... But just following the whole story, it was devastating for the whole community. Thelma is really the organizational force behind this. In conjunction with the Elks Club here in DeKalb; they raised half the money for this bench with a raffle. The rest is from community donations. ...The money itself isn’t important, it’s how they raised it.
The Elks donated this property. They’ve been very gracious with the memorial.
MW: To be honest, I had never heard of the park before this happened.
BL: I live right next to the park. I’m a runner so I run through the park all the time, so I feel an affinity for this park. When this happened, it was even more terrible that it was in a park that I run through. ...It’s like my back yard.
MW: Did that stop you from using the park?
BL: For maybe like a week or so, but I continue to use the park.
MW: Are parts of this park a little dangerous?
BL: It is a rather secluded park, but I think the park district is addressing that now. I don’t think people should be running here alone.
MW: So how did you get involved in this?
BL: Somehow on Facebook, I mentioned that I had gone running by this cross, which was the only thing we had before, and I thought someone was digging up the cross. I said I wish they wouldn’t do that. But what it was was Thelma digging it up for a sunflower. She saw my comment and told me it was her. Then we starting conversing and I became the caretaker.
MW: When was that?
BL: Last year we only had the one sunflower. This year we’ve got more. Thelma provided the seedlings and I planted all of these and basically water them daily. I planted everything but these hostas, which were planted by some members of the Elks Club.
The deer have been eating some of this one here.
MW: Why sunflowers?
BL: That was Toni’s favorite flower.
MW: What do you think of the memorial?
BL: I really like it. It’s kind of a reflective spot, I think. You can think about the enormity of what happened. It’s very peaceful. Next year we’re planning on making a larger garden. I think it’s a wonderful spot. Unfortunately, there are the circumstances that caused it to be in this place.
MW: Do you see many people here?
BL: I don’t usually spend that much time here, usually just to water the plants. I’ve never seen anyone just hanging out here.
MW: Have you ever talked to her family?
BL: Only through Facebook.
MW: Have they ever come out here?
BL: Honestly, I don’t think they ever want to be near the park.
MW: Are there are plans to hold a memorial service on the date it happened?
BL: I’m not sure that’s really in the plans at the moment, but it very well could be in the future. That might be a good idea, actually.
MW: Anything you want to add?
BL: No. I’ve always had a green thumb, so this is a chance for me to take care of these plants, to see them grow throughout the season. It’s just something, of course, I wish we didn’t have to do. It’s just an enormous tragedy for the community.
MW: Do you plan on doing this for a while?
BL: I would like to be the caretaker/gardener for every year that we have it. I live relatively nearby, so it’s convenient for me to come in and water in the morning. The Elks provide the water. I am sure that Thelma is planning on continuing this as well.